SAN DIEGO – The rules of takeout are changing for California restaurants. But some of the state’s largest counties say they’re seeking an education-first approach to enforcing Assembly Bill 1276, popularly known as “Skip the Stuff.”
The law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, effectively bans retail food businesses from providing single-use accessories such as utensils, straws and condiment packets unless requested by customers. It extends from takeout on ready-to-eat items to third-party delivery platforms, which now must offer would-be diners the option to add them to a food order rather than including them by default.
Cities and counties had until June 1 to designate an enforcement agency as AB 1276 comes with levels of penalties for non-compliance with limited exceptions, including for schools and correctional facilities. Under the law, violators are notified the first and second time with further offenses bringing a $25 fine, up to $300 annually, a state fact sheet shows.
The approach for some of the counties representing a sizable chunk of Californians is less about discipline and more about helping eateries understand the rules to stem the tide of pollution from single-use plastics.
In San Diego County, the state’s second-largest county, officials say the county’s Department of Environmental Health and Quality plans to do compliance checks as part of routine restaurant inspections.
It’s the same approach the county takes for enforcing AB 1884, the 2018 law banning full-service restaurants from handing out plastic straws to customers.
“It is our practice to seek voluntary compliance before enforcement is needed,” county spokeswoman Donna Durckel said in an email, “so over the next six months, we will educate businesses in multiple languages through helpful printed materials, email notifications, information on our website, and field staff discussions during inspections.”
Like AB 1884, the new law isn’t a ban in the truest sense. Customers still may receive chopsticks, condiment cups and items like splash sticks with their food and beverages. Now, they just have to ask for them – and shouldn’t expect they’ll just be there in takeout and delivery orders.
Some chains like Starbucks already have made the adjustment in California with more likely to follow suit.
But it takes time to adjust to new rules and it appears that’s how many counties throughout the state are managing the new law.
The largest of the state’s 58 counties, Los Angeles County, enlisted its Public Works department to enforce the regulations on single-use plastics in the county’s unincorporated areas. It’s also the focus of efforts within city limits, where this year Los Angeles City Council approved more than a dozen measures on plastic bags and other plastic disposables intended to make the community a so-called “zero waste” city, the Los Angeles Times reported.
County spokesman Steven Frasher said in an email that the law “fits perfectly” with the county’s goals to “achieve zero waste and eliminate pollution in our communities.”
“Los Angeles County has a history of leading by example when it comes to single-use plastics, banning Styrofoam food containers at county operations in 2010, and being one of the first jurisdictions in the region to ban carryout plastic bags in 2012,” Frasher said. “Once again, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors led the way by adopting an accessories-upon-request ordinance in June 2021, before it became State law.”
Others taking an educational approach in the early going include Fresno County, Orange County, Riverside County and San Bernardino County.
San Bernardino County spokeswoman Felisa Cardona said the county’s Department of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Services will begin educational outreach efforts with local facilities starting July 1. It’s part of a broader outreach effort that will come during routine inspections and is expected to include reminders throughout the year and information posted to the county website.
“This law is in alignment with several other initiatives EHS has implemented in an effort to meet the State’s requirements to reduce pollution, reduce short-lived climate pollutants and reduce food insecurity,” Cardona said.
But will it make a difference? That remains to be seen, but conservationists in the state like Mitch Silverstein, San Diego County’s policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, say it’s a step in the right direction.
Silverstein said the environmental nonprofit supported AB 1276, adding that on a local level, the group has been “long advocating for local cities to pass these sorts of things.” While acknowledging the law likely “isn’t going to save the world,” he says its benefits are similar to AB 1884 in that it’s about source reduction.
“As it stands, most customers just expect that stuff to be in the bag for takeout and most restaurants feel a certain pressure to put it there,” he said.
On a personal level, he argues the fines might be “a little bit weak,” particularly for larger chain restaurants who might just pay the annual $300 fine rather than change how they do business. If the annual cap is removed, he said that could go a long way toward maximizing its effectiveness.
Ultimately though, the endgame should be about reducing the number of materials going to waste.
“It’s not about punishing people; it’s about rewarding people for doing the right thing,” he said.